Nihilism for the Ironhearted


Published April 2022

First Things

When a man proclaims nature malignant in all its parts and professes to hate life itself, one’s first suspicion is that something is profoundly wrong with him. The man’s grievance against creation must be the effect of some personal deficiency in body or soul or both, rather than a sound conclusion reached by a powerful, disinterested mind. Few things disturb ordinary, contented people more than the spectacle of a moral desperado (to borrow Thomas Carlyle’s phrase) or metaphysical berserker raging against the order of the universe. Such raw and comprehensive loathing seems downright demonic. Human beings, however they might suffer, are expected to demonstrate some gratitude for the existence they have been granted. To scorn the gift of life, to regard it as a prescribed ordeal at best or a pointless torment at worst, strikes at the deepest human desire, which is for happiness. Normal people want more and more life in the hope of better things to come, in this world or the next—not a prompt end to the whole tiresome business of living.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837), revered in his native country and elsewhere in Europe as the foremost Italian poet since Dante, may be the great modern writer least known to an English-­speaking readership. He was perhaps the most lugubrious man of artistic genius who ever lived, and he ­pretty well matched the description of the consummate nihilist sketched above. His works are the sepulcher he built for himself, and in which he entombed, while he was still alive, every last hope he had of love and light. His mind was as bleak as the arch-pessimist Schopenhauer’s in its rejection of revealed religion, its disdain for the nineteenth century’s philistine belief in endless progress, and its unstinting contemplation of human nullity and everlasting meaninglessness.

What held his mind back from a program of total spiritual annihilation was the heart’s belief that art could provide solace to a “great soul” even in the abyss. No matter how certain ­Leopardi was that human suffering takes place in a void, that hope is futile, and that chaos is master of all, there remained the consolation that high art can irradiate the darkness with flashes of “beauty and greatness.” “Works of genius” can do this “even when they represent vividly the nothingness of things, even when they clearly show and make you feel the inevitable unhappiness of life, even when they express the most terrible despair.” They induce a passion for beauty and greatness even as they demonstrate “the irredeemable vanity” of all beauty and greatness. Nothingness taken straight up kills the spirit with an arctic blast, but nothingness rendered artfully by a master lifts one out of despondency and heats the blood. For these therapeutic purposes the encounter of Achilles and Priam, Petrarch’s Triumphs, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther are more propitious than certain narrative poems of Lord Byron, though they all lay bare “the vanity of everything.” Byron’s repellent coldness of soul infects the reader Leopardi and leaves him more wretched than before. The southern European temperament—with which Leopardi even credits Goethe, whose midlife Italian journey saved him from fierce depression and left him the paragon of vitality—is life-affirming in its artistic handling of nihilist material, as northern iciness is not.

So Leopardi averred in October 1820 at the age of twenty-two, writing in the journal he called the Zibaldone, or hodge-podge. He kept the Zibaldone from 1817 to 1834, filling 4,524 manuscript pages with his ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical philosophizing; observations on men of action, who tended to be ancient rather than modern; shrewd aphorisms after the ironic worldly manner of La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld; homely moralizing anecdotes of family life; ejaculations of horrific boredom, which made him want to kill himself; encomia to the wonderful precision of the ancient Greek imagination; subtle distinctions between crime and heroism; comparisons of the wickedness of Christian princes with ancient villainy; expositions of exemplary and unfortunate style in Italian prose and poetry; animadversions on ordinary persons’ instinctive denigration of truly superior spirits; eruptions against the wearisome unnatural graces of French literature; etymologizing turns, as only a philologist adept in six or seven languages can perform them; meditations on the various sorts of beauty to be seen in landscapes; and assorted other thoughts on the world at large, which gave Leopardi the unenviable reputation in his backwater hometown of being “­super-encyclopedic.” The Zibaldone, as remarkable an omnium-gatherum as one will find, remained unpublished until the late nineteenth century and received its only complete English translation in 2013—an admirable and somewhat frightening editorial feat. This vast book records the uncontrollable twitches and grimaces of a man in severe psychic pain, but also his tireless dedication to the life of the mind that takes all learning as its province and is curious even about the daily round of ordinary life, which most intellectuals consider beneath their notice.

Leopardi had nothing like the life he wanted. The life he did have comprised, according to his formula, equal parts suffering and boredom. Only boredom relieved his suffering, he declared, and only suffering relieved his boredom. Yet the long disease that was his life had started quite agreeably. As a little boy he dwelt for a Wordsworth-like moment in the enchanted world where fauns roamed the woods and lovely naiads disported themselves in crystal springs, and he could imagine himself one of the great Greek or Roman men of action, performing mighty deeds worthy of every available glory. His relentlessly ­pious mother brought his pagan fantasies up short. From the age of six, Leopardi was dressed in the black robes of a little abbé, and at twelve he was tonsured. Instead of a noble warrior, he took to picturing himself a renowned saint, whose holiness would astound the multitudes. The aspiration to saintliness ran its course soon enough. The ­desire to astound never left him.

At fourteen, it seemed he had found the life he was made for when his father opened to the townspeople of ­Recanati the impressive library that occupied the third floor of the family home. The citizenry never had much use for this public benefaction, but young Giacomo found a trove of wonders. The library held all he needed. To the knowledge of ­Latin and the rudiments of grammar, rhetoric, and logic he had acquired from the age of eleven with a tutor’s oversight, he soon added self-taught Greek and Hebrew of the utmost nicety and picked up some modern languages on the way to a precocious passion for philological erudition. Dreams of martial heroism and dazzling sanctity gave way to the earnest labor of scholarship and the pursuit of whatever glory ardent bookishness can win. At fifteen, he wrote a History of Astronomy, then turned out in rapid succession a translation of Hesychius of ­Milo (whoever he was), a commentary on several second-century Greek rhetoricians (who shall remain nameless), and a translation into Latin of Porphyry’s Commentary on the Life of Plotinus. Unwilling to be thought a mere pedant, eager to show that he had the common touch, he then produced a long Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients, slumming a little, in the hope of winning a wider audience. This deliberate dumbing-down failed to make the desired splash, but praise for his work and predictions of grand success rolled in from Roman eminences. His triumphant career as a marvelous mandarin looked to be a sure thing, if only he continued his perfervid studies. This is the first of your three free articles for the month.

But then, at sixteen, he discovered a hotter passion. Poetry had never excited him before; indeed, he had rather looked down on its supreme ­virtuosi. Now he breathed it. As he wrote to a friend in 1817 about this unlikely change in direction, “My head was full of modern ideas, I scorned and rejected the study of our own language. . . . I despised Homer, Dante, all the Classics. . . . What has made me change my tune? The grace of God.” The conversion, as he called it, was gradual but decisive. Reading ­Homer or Anacreon or Virgil now made his mind whirl joyously with “a crowd of fantasies, which people both my mind and my heart.” The verse translations he presently composed of portions of the ­Odyssey and the ­Aeneid were snapped up by a Milanese literary journal. These maiden efforts were no more than competent and dutiful, but soon he was inventing verses of his own, in Latin and Italian, posing as translations from Greek originals that never existed. And then came poems from the very soul. Later in life, he would say that the years of obsessive work leading up to the discovery of his true vocation were the only time in his life he knew happiness.

At eighteen, however, this happiness began to seem a bitter delusion. The quest for a limited mental excellence, “seven years of mad and ­desperate study,” had left him physically misshapen and unfit for the normal life he wanted. The years he had passed bent over his books and papers had aggravated his inborn scoliosis, a ­curvature of the spine that formed a hump on his chest and another on his back, wreaking havoc on his heart and lungs, which would give out completely in his mid-thirties. Leopardi had turned himself into a gobbo, a hunchback, something less than a whole man, a target for children’s gibes and missiles, and a hopeless loser with women, who averted their eyes when he came too close. “I have miserably and irremediably ruined myself, by rendering odious and contemptible my outer appearance . . . the only part of a man that most people take into account.” No one would love, he lamented to a friend, “a man in whom nothing but his soul has beauty.”

Leopardi for his own part did not readily fall in love with women whose souls were their most winning feature. Physical beauty drew him, and beautiful women tend to prefer comely men, as he understood only too well. The little gobbo was cut out for a lifetime of frustration and anguish. His first infatuation, at nineteen, was with a married countess who was visiting his family for two days; the sudden fever, the breathless anxiety to impress, the thwarted longing for something ineffable, and the sense of loss when she left for good established a pattern of false hope and inevitable disillusionment. He came to realize he was chasing a phantom that would always elude his grasp: “la donna che non si trova,” as he called her in the ode “Alla sua donna,” the woman who is not to be found. From repeated futility he learned to disparage all desire, all hope. Better to expect nothing when nothing is what you deserve. One would be hard-pressed to name another man who hated himself as ferociously as Leopardi did.

He began to see clearly that love would mean a perpetual seeking after happiness without ever possessing it. “I need love, love, love, fire, enthusiasm, life,” he exclaimed in a letter to his brother Carlo at twenty-four, and the vivid life he craved was what circumstance denied him at every turn. Unable to earn a living through his poetry or his scholarship, Leopardi remained subject to parental regulation throughout his brief life. His parents expected obedience amounting to reverence from their children, and they dispensed misery with a free hand. Leopardi’s mother, Contessa ­Adelaide, believed the kindest human fate was death in childhood, when an undefiled soul ensured eternal peace. His father, Conte Monaldo, held that “a wise and Christian education” had no place for such pernicious frivolities as “dancing, riding, fencing.” Irked that the boy Giacomo boorishly cut his meat with a fork, Monaldo would cut it up for him the proper way at every meal—until his son was twenty-seven years old. In the annals of paternal petty humiliation, that one is hard to beat; and it is staggering to imagine how thoroughly disconsolate and defeated Leopardi must have been in order to put up with it. Gustave Flaubert observed that in creating the life of Emma Bovary he had tried to evoke the color of a woodlouse; and it is by such an ashen atmosphere, the worst of oppressive provincial dreariness, that one imagines Leopardi engulfed.

He was not entirely docile in captivity and made various attempts to break free of his parents’ grasp and taste the delights of the larger world. His friendship with the Abate Pietro Giordani, which began with an effusive letter written by the ­eighteen-year-old Leopardi to the Milanese writer and patriot twenty-four years his senior, certainly affected his spiritual trajectory. Leopardi bewailed his misfortune in having been born into the back end of nowhere:

Here, dear sir, all is dead, all is folly and stupidity.
. . . Literature is a word unknown. . . . Do you believe that a fine mind would be valued here? As a pearl in a dung heap. . . what is there in Recanati that is beautiful? What is there that is worth seeing or learning? Nothing.

The glories of nature and the magnificent works of man beckoned him from the distance—“And must I say at the age of eighteen, ‘In this hovel I will live, and die where I was born’?” Giordani’s visit to Recanati in 1817 upended the Leopardi family proprieties. When Leopardi went to meet ­Giordani at the inn where he was staying, it marked the first time he had ever ventured out into the street alone, and Conte Monaldo’s hackles rose. Matters worsened when Leopardi joined his friend on an unprecedented day trip to Macerata, a town thirty miles away. Leopardi returned “unrecognizable,” according to a highly respectable lady of ­Recanati, appalled by the change; and family lore would blacken this day as the infamous occasion of ­Leopardi’s transformation from a dutiful Catholic believer into a pestilent freethinker. Conte ­Monaldo never forgave himself for having permitted his son the liberty to know “that miserable apostate, whose breath contaminates whoever dares to approach him.” One feels the father’s sorrow at his son’s prodigality, though one suspects that ­Leopardi’s nature was not transformed suddenly, but that his unbelief had been brewing for quite some time.

After Leopardi’s death, Giordani described how his friend had steeped himself from youth in the wisdom of classical and biblical antiquity. “He came to know the world of two thousand years ago, before he knew that of his own time; and what is more surprising, from this lost ancient world he learned what his own was, and how to value it.” That is, in his research, Leopardi had gathered ammunition for his frontal assault on modernity, with its misconceived cult of reason, unreasoning belief in the perfectibility of man, supersession of religious faith by philosophy, extrusion of excellence by ­egalitarianism, and obsession with material progress. Although he remained an intractable unbeliever, his attitude toward Christianity sometimes conveyed a peculiar sympathy: Faith in the Redeemer was sheer illusion, but it was a life-enhancing untruth, and its loss extinguished an invaluable source of warmth and light. Nature had been surprisingly kind to humanity in its childhood and youth; only when reason had usurped the place of the most precious illusion—religious belief—as the fundamental guiding principle for human beings did life reveal its unendurable gruesomeness. For there is reason and there is reason: clarity of mind as ­Leopardi understood it, incapable of being deceived and sweeping away every falsehood in its path; and on the other hand, Enlightenment pandering to ­unreal visions of the earthly paradise. The triumph of cold reason at nihilistic absolute zero would blight forever the hope of human happiness.

Leopardi wrote as a prophet who believed he saw more deeply into the constructions of human intellect and the abominations of inhuman nature than the most exalted thinkers of his time, and thought he could foretell the direction mankind would take. The truth would set no one free. It was a terrifying sight to behold, naked reality in its most unflattering light—nature indifferent or even hostile to human needs and wishes, the invisible world simply a fantasy, the existence of God the greatest con job ever, all sentient beings born and bred in pain and horror, and extinction the universal end. The end all human beings strive for is happiness, but happiness eludes every ­pursuer: It is an impossibility, an illusion. The true end, which no one can fail to reach, is death. As the impossibility of happiness becomes apparent, death is what human beings will seek in its place: RIP QED.

Such is the teaching Leopardi propagates in all his major works: the Zibaldone, the collection of essays and dialogues he calls the Operette Morali, and the poems that made his illustrious name, the Canti or Songs. He sings the song of everlasting human woe at every opportunity, and in doing so sees himself as a benefactor to mankind, the most honest and most forgiving of humanists. As he declares in the Zibaldone entry for January 2, 1829, “My philosophy makes nature guilty of everything, and by exonerating humanity altogether, it redirects the hatred, or at least the complaint, to a higher principle, the true origin of the ills of living beings, etc. etc.”

George Santayana, who also remarked the brute stupidity of nature but was more appreciative of its glories than Leopardi, and who was rarely wrong about the bleakest writers, wrote that Leopardi was a hybrid of the Romantic and classical: “Leopardi lived in a romantic tower, a dismal, desolate ruin; but through the bars of his prison he beheld the same classic earth and Olympian sky that had been visible to Homer, Pindar, and Sophocles.” His romantic longings unfulfilled, Leopardi struggled to come to terms with the world the supreme Greek poets described, which was the world as he found it; and his art is the record of that struggle.

Leopardi enforced upon himself a discipline of mental austerity and took it to the point of desolation—as though Homer or ­Pindar renounced all heroic glory, or Sophocles spoke his own ultimate truth when his chorus insisted that the best human fate was never to be born, a theme that echoes throughout Leopardi’s writings. For him, the best of men is he who accepts his fate even though he knows his life is meaningless; he fears nothing and tolerates no saving illusion. His satisfaction lies in his contempt for nature and fate, in the philosophic iron in the soul, which “at least provides strong men with the fierce satisfaction of seeing every mask torn from the hidden and mysterious cruelty of human destiny,” as he declares in the “Dialogue between Tristan and a Friend” in the Operette Morali. How to live without hope of happiness or even relief from misery in this life, or without hope of anything at all after death, is the true philosophic art. What Christians would think of as despair, Leopardi honors as lucidity and the courageous denial of all consolation except that provided by the beauty of the poem he creates.

And there are moods in which Leopardi strips away even that last stay against nothingness. Truth and beauty are incompatible, he writes in “Memorable Sayings of Filippo Ottonieri,” Leopardi’s alter ego in one of the Operette Morali: “It is certain that truth is not beautiful.” The Keatsian formula for combined aesthetic and epistemic rapture does not apply. Facing the truth is a thoroughly disagreeable experience; whereas Aristotle considered the theoretical man to be not only happy but godlike in his contemplation of the eternal things, Leopardi finds such philosophizing devoid of any pleasure. What he discovers is cause for sorrow, confirmation of man’s negligible place in the universe. Of course, one may wonder whether Leopardi is legitimately laying waste to the beauty of the mind at its most ravishing, or whether he is concealing a secret joy in his own beautiful and great intellectual powers, which have revealed the eternal truths.

Mostly, one sees a soul thrust into an ordeal and weary of the fight, trying to summon the will to go on. It is hard even for a committed spiritual renegade to resist the hope that man’s suffering does not go unheeded by the eternal Powers. The poem “Alla primavera, o delle favole antiche” (To Spring, or On the Ancient Myths) gorgeously evokes the time when the mythic world was real, when willow tree and nightingale were tormented women whom the gods had mercifully given a new form of existence, so that seemingly inhuman nature was in fact imbued with human sensibility. Today things are quite different, and the closing lines measure the unbridgeable distance between human and inhuman nature. Leopardi senses the importunity of human creatures in pain, who ache for their sorrow to be recognized by some more fortunate being. Addressing “lovely Nature,” the poet does not ask for anything as rarefied as compassion from her but would be content with a mere acknowledgement that he hurts: “if indeed you live, / if there is anything / in heaven, on sunlit earth, / or on the ocean’s breast that, if not pitying, / can testify at least to what we suffer.” So he wrote at twenty-three, knowing already that the evidence is definitive against any trace of sympathy from the clockwork universe, which operates on strict mathematical principles. (I have used the lovely and unexceptionable translations of the Canti by Jonathan Galassi.)

Nature vibrates at a different frequency for Leopardi than for the notable Romantic poets among his contemporaries. When Shelley listens to his celebrated skylark, from the incomparable joy, ease, truth, and depth of its “crystal stream” of song he hopes to learn the “harmonious madness” of poetry so superb that all the world will listen to it raptly. When Leopardi watches and overhears his solitary thrush in “Il passero solitario,” in comparing himself to the simple, happy creature he ends up mourning his own past, present, and future. Every stage of life holds its appointed pains, and the young man whose youth gives him no pleasure anticipates his old age, when he will reflect grimly on a wasted life: “When these eyes say nothing to another’s heart, / and the world is blank to them, and the day to come / duller and darker than the one at hand, / what will I think then of this wish of mine? / And of my life? And my own self? / Ah, I’ll repent, and often / look back, unconsoled.”

Sometimes Leopardi sets aside the lyric poet’s conventional accoutrements—the rose-lipped dying maidens and the infinite shining ­heavens—and delivers his unsparing summation of a lifetime plagued by sorrow, boredom, and failure. In the sixteen lines of “A se stesso” (“To Himself”), the poet is terse, mordant, implacable, utterly disillusioned: forgiving himself nothing, but saving his richest hatred for nature, which hurled him so ungently into unwanted being. He does indulge in one traditional poetic maneuver, apostrophizing his heart, which he offers eternal rest:

Be still forever.
You have beaten enough.
Nothing deserves your throbbing, nor is earth
worth sighing over. Life is only
bitterness and boredom, and the world is filth.
Now be calm. Despair for the last time.
Death is the one thing
fate gave our kind.

The Italian original is even more chillingly ­unpoetic. Leopardi says what he has to say in short order and is done with it. Byronic world-weariness, the soul wearing out the breast, is peacock self-­display by comparison.

For Leopardi, unlike Shelley and Keats, nature provoked no ecstasies, so he might seem an Olympian mind of an antique cast, icy, sublime, and forbidding. Yet in a crucial sense he was a Romantic rather than a Classicist. Whereas Sophocles saw the world steadily and saw it whole, Leopardi beheld his own pitiable self wherever he looked. What he touted as the rarest magisterial vision of the world exactly as it is was in fact the special pleading of an unfortunate whom nature had selected for a very hard time. Rather than a disinterested neo-pagan sage, he was a soul in torment, who could not forgive the Creator for his deformity and loneliness, and therefore preferred to cut God out of the picture altogether, replacing him with immemorial philosophic abstractions such as cruel Nature and inexorable Fate.

This does not mean that Leopardi was not a great artist and an intellect to reckon with. His principal artistic persona, the spirit who negates and who takes pity on human beings for the agonies they must suffer, is the most straightforward of nihilists, alluring in his clarity of vision and unwavering fortitude. In the closing lines of Leopardi’s best-known poem, “La ginestra, o il fiore del deserto” (Broom, or the Flower of the Desert), he addresses the only plant to grow on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and praises its good sense as against human folly: “Far wiser and less fallible / than man is, you did not presume / that either fate or you had made / your fragile kind immortal.” Men choose to live within reach of the volcano’s devastating eruption because they are foolish, whereas the broom lives and dies there because it can’t do otherwise. “And unresisting, / you’ll bow your blameless head / under the deadly scythe” of the lava flow. To know your place in the world is to recognize that nature can snuff out your life in one terrifying instant, and when that time comes, men are as helpless as the broom. Acceptance—of sorrow, boredom, failure, and death—is the hardest part of wisdom.

It is of course Nietzsche who urges his readers to build their houses on the slopes of volcanoes, to live dangerously and say yes to life no matter how awful it gets. Leopardi’s is the more honest nihilism, the purest distillation of nothingness. Accepting one’s own particular portion of the universal lot is a far cry from love of life. Whereas Nietzsche preaches the supreme wisdom and moral excellence of amor fati, loving your fate so intensely that it seems entirely the working of your own will, Leopardi sees nothing to love even in the fate of the man who is clear-sighted and strong enough to gaze imperturbably upon life and death stripped to their hideous core. Leopardi’s is the more severe teaching, offering no hope of transcending Christian transcendence (in Erich Heller’s phrase) as do Nietzsche and his acolyte Rainer Maria Rilke in their glamorous prospectus of free-spirited modernity. One sees in Leopardi what godless life really is.

Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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